That ‘women in gaming’ post

There has been a lot of discussion on gaming blogs I read recently about feminism and gaming. Much of it valid and making good points (if couched in rather arcane jargon for a non-arts grad like me).

The elephant in the room with feminism and gaming

And yet no one seems willing to really deal with the core issue, which is that there is a strong gaming culture that really hates women. I’m talking about the cesspit that is xbox live chat. I’m talking about the smack talk on trade channels and the ease with which some PvP players talk about raping their opponents.  (Rivs discussed this in a post yesterday, and also linked to appletellsall who makes a poignant call for people to challenge this behaviour).

The fact that some faction leaders are wearing string bikini tops pales into insignificance compared with the shit that comes out of the mouths of many male gamers. And the horrible and unfriendly culture of many games. Games which in themselves may not be overtly sexist in any way – any way except for attracting foul mouthed yobbos as their core audience who think that the entire genre is their safe space to say all the things they are told off for at home.

It isn’t just computer games. Even when I was playing RPGs as a teen, there were stories going around about sexist GMs who thought it was amusing to have female character brutalised and raped in games. (When I say stories, I mean you didn’t have to go far until you ran into someone who’d experienced this.) A product of poorly socialised teenage men with a bone to pick? I don’t know. I only know that no RPG rulebook I ever read had rules for that or even suggested it. Players thought of that one all on their own.

So from early on, as a female gamer, it’s easy to get the sense that you are intruding on a male domain and a lot of people really really don’t want you there. In fact, gaming culture hates you. And all you wanted to do was just play games. The games don’t even have the decency to label themselves, “No women allowed!”

Now don’t get me wrong. I know there are many many male gamers who are far more welcoming, and I love you all (in a sisterly sense). I play RPGs and board games with and against some of them. I have played MMOs with many of them. I’ve commented on blogs written by many, and I even married one! I do in fact like (some) guys, although it will not stop me trying to stomp you into the ground if we should meet in a battleground.

But gaming culture has been toxic for far too long. Trying to change that is a long haul proposition, a journey towards recognising that “those guys” don’t own the hobby. We don’t need to feminise everything; neutral is a win compared to where we are now. It’s going to be a messy fight because the perpetrators will – correctly – see that what was previously their space is being invaded and cleaned up. Just it will benefit everyone else who isn’t them, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, etc. I have the smallest violin in the world and it’s playing for all of them right now.

How can it ever be viable to cater to the minority?

masseffect2stats

This week, Bioware released some statistics they had gathered about how people play Mass Effect 2. One of the things they showed was that 80% of games played featured a male Shepherd.

Now, riddle me this: if you were Bioware and had that statistic to hand, would you think it was worthwhile to keep offering the option of a female Shepherd in ME3? That’s a lot of voice work and artist work for only 20% of the player base. And unlike class distribution, which can be tweaked by making various class abilities more fun or more powerful, people either want to play a female avatar or else they don’t.

And yet, as a female gamer, I’m never going to be in that 80% who want to play a male character (OK, I have a male blood elf alt but BElves don’t count!). Gaming is so male dominated that I’m never  going to be in the majority of players, unless I swear off the games I love and switch to another genre. Any argument that says “Well, most players want more boobs on their NPCs and more bald pasty space marines as their PCs so that’s what we must provide” is always going to exclude me, because I will never be part of that ‘most.’ It will exclude anyone else who wants to be a bit different too. And since I don’t want to go and play Farmville, I pretty much have to grin and bear whatever the market wants to serve up to their majority male audience who have certain preferences in their power fantasies. That’s the reality for most female gamers, although we still have a non-negligent amount of gaming dollars/ pounds to spend.

I don’t for a moment think that Bioware will use these statistics to stop offering female Shep as an option. But I’d wonder if they were tempted to eye the bottom line, just a bit.

What would be so bad about catering to a wider player base?

I am sure that the sorts of things that female gamers typically ask for would benefit most gamers anyway. More crafting, emotionally engaging storylines, more non-combat activities, cosmetic gear, better housing and more roleplaying opportunities. No one would lose out if MMOs catered to a wider playerbase.  Game genres that are popular now won’t just disappear. For example, there will always be shooters. Even the drive towards dumbing down isn’t particularly driven by a female audience but more by common sense and market numbers. An accessible game doesn’t need to be a dumbed down one.

So why do people make such a crazy fuss whenever this subject comes up instead of saying, “Hey maybe you’re right. How can we make our games more inclusive so that you don’t always feel like an unwanted stranger?”

It’s because games are generally designed to appeal to the notional core male gamer. As soon as anyone suggests that perhaps all gaming activity should not be focussed on this marketing ideal, people who fall comfortably into that group will start to bitch like crazy. That’s a good thing, it means that the message is getting through. And yet, going back to the Bioware numbers, we cannot really argue that it would improve the bottom line. We’re asking for something that may or may not be financially rewarding for the developer and that’s a sticky wicket to be on.

Yet, what choice do we really have? Give up on gaming and go back to the knitting, sci-fi fandom, or some suitably feminine pursuit where we will be in the majority? We’re gamers. And this too is a game.

(For the record, I don’t think that WoW is by any means the worst offender. Which is part of the reason that it does have quite a strong female demographic.)

Gaming News: FF 14 Open Beta, Stardock blames Elemental launch for layoffs, Red5 announce Firefall, Duke Nukem, $100 XBox live predicted

We’re heading now towards the last few gaming conventions of the summer season. PAX was this week, and so expect to see more articles imminently in the gaming press about various demos. The Escapist’s article on the Torchlight 2 demo caught my eye (in a ‘when can I play this’ kind of a way.) The most fun trailer out of PAX so far has been the SWTOR/ KOTOR one – a little unexpected information there about what happened to Revan for any fans of him/ her/ it. And HK-47 who was the real star of the game.

EQ2X continues through open beta and SOE are evidently paying attention to feedback because they have now opened up the ability for bronze (ie. free to play) customers to buy access to the various different races and classes which had hitherto been locked to subscribers. They’re selling races in packs of three, and classes as single items. I think selling classes in matched pairs would have made more sense – what happens now if someone wants to defect to a class they don’t have access to? Arkenor takes a look at the marketplace (cash shop) to see what else is on offer –- bear in mind the game is in beta so these could change.

LOTRO opens up its doors to Free to Play customers next week also, so expect to hear more about that too.

Another story which caught my eye this week: Jason Kapalka, one of the co-founders of Popcap, gave a talk at GDC Europe on the ethics of social gaming. He thinks social games are “kind of evil right now,” and although Popcap isn’t 100% evil free, they’re trying to put fun above monetisation. If I ever get bored of Plants vs Zombies or Bejewelled, I’ll let them know.

And if anyone is curious, SC2 sold 3 million copies in its first month. Not bad, but Cataclysm can beat it – come on WoW fans, don’t let the RTS players win!

Final Fantasy 14 has a rocky open beta

Square Enix opened their doors to the muddy hordes of open beta testers for Final Fantasy 14 this week, and may wish that they hadn’t. Everyone agrees that the game is beautiful – well, everyone who was able to download the files and play the game – but I’ve also seen a lot of feedback to the effect that it looks and feels like a console game.

Pete@Dragonchasers likes the beta and shares some tips.

The Final Fantast XIV Core crew have a really good post on how to figure out if it is the game for you.

Elemental has a rocky launch too, Stardock lays off employees

Anyone been playing Elemental? It’s a 4X fantasy themed game that was released recently by Stardock, and has been plagued by reports of being severely bug ridden to the point of large parts of the game being unplayable.

A lot of people were looking forwards to the game, a lot of people have been disappointed. The Stardock CEO even published a statement acknowledging that the launch had been disastrous, taking personal responsibility and promising to do better in future.

Darren@Common Sense Gamer picks up on news from the forums that because of the poor launch and poor sales, Stardock are now laying people off.

It’s all very unfortunate – at the end of the day if you sell a faulty product then this is what happens. But he’s lucky people aren’t suing and asking for their money back.

Red5 finally announce their new project

Another project featuring ex-WoW developers, Firefall is going to be a team based online shooter in a futuristic setting and is due out towards the end of 2011. And naturally, it’ll be free to play.

Duke Nukem Forever

2K have announced that Duke Nukem Forever is due out in 2011, courtesy of Borderlines studio Gearbox Software.

I personally doubt many people still care about Duke Nukem Forever (but I expect all of them will reply to this post :) ). The game is mostly notorious for how long it has been ‘in development.’ Whilst you can just about get away with this if you are Blizzard, I’m not so sure it applies here.

$100 pa for xbox platinum live? analyst predicts yes.

I wish people would pay me to predict that prices will go up. Michael Pachter thinks that $100 is the next big price point for xbox live. This of course followed Microsoft’s announcement this week that the console online service would be increased by $10.

He thinks they will reinvest some of the money in providing new services. Although I agree that any notion of a tie up between the xbox and itunes is very far fetched – I don’t think Apple operate that way. But who knows. I’m mostly amused by the phrase, “the next evolutionary step in subscription options.”

And it seems odd to me that in an era of free to play pricing models, Microsoft is so attached to bundling services which players may or may not want.

Blizzard’s new vision for a social network

This has been a strong week for MMO news. As well as the Champions Online pricing model, the CoH response, and lots of video of Aion in action, Blizzard slipped in their second quarter conference call.

And one of the highlights was their plans for battle.net. Battle.net began life as Blizzard’s online gaming service, and was released at the same time as the original Diablo. It never involved member fees and was also easy to access from Blizzard’s games. Blizzard has even claimed in the past that it was the largest online gaming network, bar none.

“When you look at Battle.net and you look at the subscriber base we have with World of Warcraft, even Xbox Live is not even close to us… I think we absolutely are winning. And you can count on us bringing MMORGs as well as more games that would be playable over Battle.net.”

- Paul Sams (2006)

So with this background, it’s maybe surprising that Blizzard has taken so long to have another look at battle.net. They’re talking about adding social networking features, cross-game communication, unified account management, and more. It’s important enough that Starcraft II is being delayed so that battle.net can be ready in time. And no one delays a surefire hit unless they think they’ll make more money in the long run by waiting.

I’ll definitely be expecting to hear more about this at Blizzcon, in fact it may end up being the biggest change coming down the line influencing how all games are played online in future. And if you think that sounds bold, bear in mind that although Blizzard have a well-earned reputation for collecting ideas from other games and polishing them up, in the online gaming field they have always been one step ahead of the pack. (And I also wonder how much it’ll cost us …)

On another note, although cross-game communication sounds neat, I wish they’d steal an idea from EQ2 and give us cross-server communication first!!

What would you want to see on an  overhauled battle.net?